Civil War Readalouds

For Younger elementary students

Before reading
Many of the concepts associated with the time period of the Civil War (slavery, freedom, states rights, battles, Reconstruction, etc.) can be difficult to convey to your youngest students. One way to introduce them to the notion that war is hard for everyone is to use books that feature children their own age that they can relate to.

Perhaps you have students who have parents deployed in the military. These children are your “experts” about what it is like to have a parent go off to war, the sacrifices families at home must make, and the challenges that they face on a daily basis. Generate a discussion about this, creating a two-column chart that will show how war is hard for grownups, how it is hard for children. Add to this chart as you read the books below.

During/After reading
Several of the characters in the books below are slaves. Explain to students that, although the stories are fictional, they portray some truths about the time period and about slavery. Keep a chart which answers this question: “What are we learning about slaves and they way they were treated?” Add to it as appropriate in the course of your reading.

Characters reveal a great deal through their thoughts and actions, and students will comprehend the story better if they can understand what motivates the characters, what obstacles they face, and what the outcomes are. Introduce a chart such as this to be completed as a whole group or with partners:

Somebody… (name)


(list obstacle)

(what happened?)

Recommended books

Hopkinson, Deborah. Billy and the Rebel. ISBN: 0-689-83964-2. Lexile: 490
This Ready-to-Read early chapter book is based on the true story of how Harriet Bayly and her son Billy, Pennsylvania farmers near a Rebel camp, harbored a very young Confederate soldier who deserted on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Billy's mother leaves to tend to wounded Union soldiers and Billy must protect the farm and the identity of his new friend. Hopkinson does a nice job of depicting Billy's feelings during that battle and in its aftermath in a manner that is developmentally appropriate for young children.

Hopkinson, Deborah. From Slave to Soldier. ISBN: 978-0-689-83965-8. Lexile: 460
This is another Ready-to-Read chapter book by acclaimed non-fiction writer Deborah Hopkinson. Hopkinson tells the tale of eleven year old John McCline, a slave from Tennessee, who joins a passing regiment of Union soldiers who promise him protection and freedom if he joins their ranks. Johnny becomes the mule team driver's helper and proves himself a worthy soldier. Again Hopkinson gives young readers a sense of what it must have been like for young Johnny in terms they can understand and relate to. An added bonus for both this book and the one above is the author's note at the end that gives additional information about the main character and Hopkinson's sources.

Levine, Ellen. Henry's Freedom Box. ISBN: 978-0-439-77733-9. Lexile: AD 380
Levine’s book sheds light on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, one of the most famous of all runaway slaves. She gently leads readers through Henry’s life as a slave, beginning with him as a young boy. Use this book as another example of escapes made on the Underground Railroad; not all runaways fled by walking at night; Henry, with the help of some white friends, mailed himself in a box to Philadelphia! Illustrations by the talented Kadir Nelson will evoke feelings in readers and help add to the discussion. This lesson plan at Scholastic provides some supplementary materials to use with the book.

Monjo, F.N. The Drinking Gourd. ISBN: 9780064440424. Lexile: 370
Young Tommy Fuller is sent home by his father after causing a ruckus in church. Once home he discovers a family of runaway slaves hiding in the family's barn. He soon learns that they are his father's latest “passengers” on the Underground Railroad. Deacon Fuller enlists Tommy's aid in getting them safely to their next station and Tommy must come to grips with just how dangerous that is for all involved. Set in the years just before the Civil War, the book provides an explanation suitable for young children about the deacon's refusal to obey the Fugitive Slave Act.

Porter, Connie. Meet Addy: an American Girl. ISBN: 9781562470753. Lexile: 700.
This book is part of the well-written and still popular American Girl series of historical fiction books. Students will get caught up in the tension and danger as Addy and her mother make a break for freedom from their life of slavery in North Carolina. The author balances fiction and fact nicely, and students will be able to relate to Addy's daily chores in the field, her concern for her brother and father who are sold off to another master, her hunger on the run, her sadness about separation from her baby sister, etc. Extend this text with the companion volume below.

Sinnott, Susan. Welcome to Addy's World 1864: Growing up During America's Civil War. ISBN: 1-56247-771-4. Lexile: IG 1000.
This is a companion non-fiction text to Meet Addy (above), providing historical context for her daily activities and the challenges families like hers faced in their quest for freedom. Photographs, paintings, and artifacts from the time period illuminate topics such as work, fun and games, religion, fashion, and the homefront (both North and South). This is useful for explanations of things encountered in fictional works, and students will enjoy browsing its contents.

Winter, Jeanette. Follow the Drinking Gourd. ISBN: 0-679-81997-5. Lexile: AD 630
With spare text and lush illustrations, Winter tells how Peg Leg Joe hired himself out to plantation owners and secretly taught their slaves (through song) about escaping by following the North Star. Many small details such as what they ate, what they heard in the woods, and where they hid make it real for students. Winter uses the song lyrics as a device to help tell the story and includes the music at the end. An author's note at the beginning gives background information about the Underground Railroad and Peg Leg Joe.

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